A Serpent’s Tooth

Betty C. Mitchell

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” (Shakespeare, King Lear).

The old king had tried to be a good father. He had given his daughters everything, and asked only their love. Now the time had come to retire and leave everything to them. He hoped to retain only his dignity and his faithful servants. Everything else he put into their hands, including his own care. But his ungrateful daughters could think only of themselves. The old man was a millstone around their necks, reminding them of their duty and hampering their freedom. So they dismissed his servants, robbing him of his kingly status, his dignity, and his independence. Denying in deed the love they had professed in word, they broke the old man’s heart, causing him to cry out in anguish, “Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits / To laughter and contempt, that she may feel / How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child” (Act I, Scene 4).

Such is the dramatic picture Shakespeare paints of filial ingratitude in his great tragedy King Lear. The picture is so poignant that one wonders whether Shakespeare had himself felt the sting of the serpent’s tooth. If not, he certainly must have encountered a Lear or two among his acquaintances, for the sin of ingratitude is ageless and universal.

Sadly, Lear’s experience is not confined to kings or pagans. Mark how many children of Christian parents respond with indifference or rebellion to their parents’ sacrificial love. Similarly, the heart of God must often grieve over the way we, His children, respond to His gifts. Human nature devises all kinds of substitutes for gratitude.

It’s my right.

In a culture where demanding one’s “rights” is continually and strongly advocated in all forms of the media, taught in public education, trumpeted in the popular music and literature, and even preached from many pulpits, is it any wonder that our children see every advantage they receive not as a privilege but as their due?

As Americans, we have taken for granted our forefathers’ gift of freedom to the extent that we are in danger of losing it. Often we Christians take for granted God’s gift of salvation, forgetting that we deserve only His wrath. Do our children take for granted their Christian heritage, godly parents, Christian education, Bible-teaching churches, even God’s love?

Thanks, but is that all?

Picture the small child on Christmas morning, the floor under the Christmas tree laden with toys and other gifts, looking up at his parents and demanding, “Is that all?” We have too many “things.” Ads tell us to buy certain products and receive a lot of “stuff.” Our children want everything they see advertised or everything their friends have, because from the cradle to teen years they have been bombarded with worthless “stuff.” Instead of being grateful for what they have, they quickly learn to expect more and are dissatisfied if they don’t get it.

God harshly judged the Israelites on their wilderness journey when they fell prey to this sinful attitude. In spite of God’s faithful daily provision of manna, they were not satisfied. They lusted after flesh to eat: “But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes” (Num. 11:6). God answered their complaint, inundating them with fresh quail meat, but “while the flesh was yet between their teeth . . . the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague” (Num. 11:33). As the Psalmist put it, “They soon forgat his works; they waited not for his counsel: But lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:13–15). Do we also murmur and complain when God withholds something we think we should have, forgetting the showers of His blessings we have already received?

What do they want from me?

On the other hand, there are those who cannot receive anything gracefully. To them, it is easier to give than to receive, not because they have a giving spirit, but because they don’t want to be indebted to the giver. I know a young man who has a real problem in this area. Generosity on the part of others, especially his parents, creates in him a sense of burdensome indebtedness rather than gratitude. Consequently, the more lavish the gift, the more burdened he becomes, responding with suspicious cynicism rather than with gratitude. For people with this problem, the only way out of their dilemma is to out-give the giver. This attitude is nothing more than another form of pride. Samuel Johnson (1709–84), English author and lexicographer, wrote, “There are minds so impatient of inferiority that their gratitude is a species of revenge, and they return benefits, not because recompense is a pleasure, but because obligation is a pain.”

From the beginning, God’s gift of creation was received by sinful mankind with unbelief rather than with gratitude, “because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21). They knew that recognition of God as the Giver of these gifts came with an obligation to serve Him, and they wanted to serve only themselves. The same attitude causes many today to refuse salvation as a free gift. People devise all kinds of substitutes in an attempt to earn their way to heaven, not realizing that the price has already been paid. Recognizing that every good and perfect gift comes from God should cause us to realize that these benefits do come with an obligation— not an obligation of repayment—but simply one of thankfulness. Psalm 100 tells us to “enter into his gates with thanksgiving.” George Herbert prayed, “Thou hast given so much to me. . . . Give one thing more—a grateful heart.”

How can we teach our children to have a grateful heart? We must first set the example. Do they hear us giving a perfunctory “Bless this food” in a hurried monotone before each meal, or do they experience a time of true gratitude to God for His many blessings? Do they see us amassing every new gadget that comes on the market, overspending on Christmas gifts, going into debt to buy expensive clothes, cars, or houses? How can we teach them to deny themselves if we never do, or if we give them everything they want even before they want it? Do we set the example of generosity by giving to others in need? And most important of all, do we establish an atmosphere of gratitude at home in our daily conversation, devotions, and interaction with each other? Do we help our children to understand the great price that was paid for their salvation and the debt of gratitude that they owe?

Paul tells the Thessalonian believers, “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18). If we are we truly grateful for all God has given us, we will communicate this gratitude to our children. Then we will never feel the sting of the “serpent’s tooth.”

At the time of original publication, Betty Mitchell was a retired teacher and freelance writer living in Greer, South Carolina.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)